I Learned About Flying From That

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On a beautiful day in San Diego, we loaded our two small airplanes for a trip to the Baja Peninsula. My friend Rick would fly his Cessna 177 with his friend Ted. Greg and I would fly the Finley Flyer, a vintage Piper 140 modified with a 180-hp Lycoming retrofit engine with only 500 hours on it. This little airplane had taken us faithfully to Baja many times, and we were confident she would do the same this weekend.

Greg loaded up three five-gallon cans of fuel, due to the scarcity of avgas in Baja. I noticed the cans were secured with a bungee cord. "Greg, if we crashed, we would be wearing those cans," I remarked. From flying with John and Martha King I had learned to secure anything that could fly around in the cockpit. In one of their safety seminars the Kings recalled crashing in a field and a flying toolbox taking off a swatch of Martha's scalp. I used the seat belt to grab the cans through their handles, tightening them down so hard one of the vents popped. I thought that ought to hold them. This simple precaution may have saved our lives.

We headed out as a flight of two from Gillespie Field, San Diego, on a south-southeast course to check in at San Felipe, Mexico. Rick called ahead to open our border-crossing flight plan. Checking in at San Felipe, we had our papers stamped numerous times and took off south down the magnificent coastline. We were excited as we crossed over into the frontier. The chatter on our inter-plane frequency filled with jokes as we flew over the spectacular scenery of the San Jose Mountains. Cruising down Baja's east coast, I asked Greg, "If we lost our engine, where would you put down the airplane?" I like to ask this question just to maintain safety awareness. I had no idea it would become a critical question I'd be asking myself very soon.

After several hours of flying and almost 360 miles south of the border, we approached one of the most beautiful bays anywhere: Bahia de Los Angeles. We were eager to get to our final destination, San Francisquitos, only 30 minutes south, and decided to cut across the bay to save time and fuel, putting us a few miles out over water.

Martha King has formulated an aviation version of Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.

The sound was the most sickening sound you could imagine hearing in an airplane, a sound that jolted me into an adrenaline panic. A continuous muffled explosion accompanied a vibration so violent I thought our airplane might break up in flight. I looked out the window to see the fuel caps dangling at the ends of their tether chains and fuel vibrating out in a bandwidth pattern across the wings. If that was happening to the fuel, what the hell was happening to the engine? The smell of many years of cockpit dust and crankcase fumes streamed into our cabin. I got a good look at the engine and could see most of it. It looked fine-except we were flying and the prop wasn't moving.

An airplane makes a distinct sound as it cuts through the air without the masking noise of the engine running. For a millisecond, I was stunned to hear it. It makes more noise than you would think.

As the more experienced pilot, I said to Greg, "I've got the plane." On the radio I called out "Mayday! Mayday! Ricky, we are going in!" Then I thought, okay, now I'm a glider pilot. I instructed Greg to tighten his seat belt as tight as he could. He reminded me to open the door. Of course: Open the door. I aimed the airplane for shore and held it at best glide.

I knew as soon as the nosewheel hit we would flip over and slide underwater. I held the airplane off the water until we were just about to stall, then put it in a nose-high attitude to slap the tail into the water as hard as I could.

Greg later described being "hit in the face with a fire hose." To me it seemed like a six-foot wave broke a foot in front of me, sending a huge blast of water towards me. As the airplane flipped over onto its back, the cockpit instantly filled up with water. I couldn't tell up from down. But I did know we had come to a full stop: It was time to unfasten my seat belt and exit the airplane.

I saw light-that must be up. I pushed on the door: nothing. Immediately I pulled my legs up to kick it open. Stuck! I calmed down and thought, Okay, this is just a door, I can figure this out. Running my hand along the edge I found the side opposite the hinges, pushed hard, and it opened. Maybe I'd been pushing on the wrong part. My lungs ached now as I scrambled to get out. I shot up to the surface, moving fast, and popped through. Not as deep as I thought. The airplane was sinking nose first. I gasped two reflexive breaths, heart pounding in my ears. Holding the third breath, I dove back under to find Greg.

The airplane had settled like a fishing bobber, the engine acting as a lead weight, two-thirds of the fuselage submerged. Pulling the door open completely, I saw Greg had undone his seat belt and was waving his hand out the door. Reaching in, grabbing his shirtsleeve, I pulled him hard out of the cockpit and kicked in the direction of the surface. He was bleeding from a gash on his nose.

"Greg, get away from the plane, you're okay!" With its tail pointed straight up, the airplane slid quickly and silently beneath the water. Nothing remained except my floating gym bag and the nosewheel. Apparently the wheel had sheared off on impact. It was floating away with the current, north by northeast, into the Sea of Cortez.

I took a physical survey. It looked like Greg had a broken nose and some facial lacerations. He was not bleeding badly-a good thing, because sharks inhabit those waters. An orange object in the water caught my eye-a lifeboat! Someone threw us a lifeboat! I sprinted across the water to grab it. A life vest. I tried to put it on, but the webbing strap was drawn so tight I couldn't feed it through the plastic buckle. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn't draw any slack. I used my belt to secure the vest to me as best I could, then swam back to Greg. Fortunately, the waters of the Gulf have a very high salt content, which was helping us stay afloat. We started to swim towards shore, about a mile away.

We swam for what seemed like an hour. I asked Greg what time it was. He said 3 p.m. By 3:30 I noticed that not only were we not making sufficient progress, but triangulating our position, we seemed to be moving opposite from the way we had been swimming. The current that had carried off the nosewheel was sending us in the same direction.

I heard Rick's airplane buzzing like a mosquito, moving in and out of perceptible range. At one point he flew past us. I was sure he saw us-why did he fly away? After what seemed like a long time, he circled again. The airplane spotted us, came in low and started circling. Rick circled three times. Or maybe it was 50 times.

A small Mexican fishing boat-a panga-appeared on the horizon. I waved; the driver waved back. He pulled alongside and tried to pull us in with the help of Rick's passenger, Ted, who had a handheld radio guided by Rick from the air. We didn't have enough strength to get into the boat. They grabbed us like a couple of sea turtles and hauled us aboard. I was so happy to see them. They covered us with a sleeping bag and kept the speed down to keep us from getting any colder. We were shaking uncontrollably on the ride in. Greg was chafed raw from the swim, and we later discovered some interesting burns from what we suspected were plankton-size jellyfish, chemical burns from the gas, or maybe both.

Sleep didn't come easily that night. Every time I shut my eyes, all I could see was the moment of impact, the nose diving over and a rush of water coming at me. Rick's snoring didn't help either. The next morning we all assembled for a Mexican breakfast. The plan was for everyone to get in Rick's airplane and fly home. Adding up our total weight in my head, we were outside the envelope. I was not up for two crashes in one weekend. We decided Greg and I would take a bus home.

As I sat there trying to figure out our situation, I felt calm and happy to be alive. At least I wasn't swimming for my life, or thinking I might drown, crash or fall from the sky. I was warm, dry and slightly inconvenienced by being stuck in the middle of Baja California, 350 miles from the USA.

There are a few lessons in all this, a few mistakes. I have been told there is a 50 percent chance of survivability from ditching a fixed-gear airplane; a good thing to know if you have a choice to make. You should never fly farther than you could glide back to shore. But do most pilots know how far an airplane will glide? The distance is shorter than you think. One of my flight instructors used to pull the power while we flew various stages of the pattern, to see if I could put the plane on the numbers. This is a great exercise, which should be practiced regularly. Your survivability increases immeasurably if you are able to put the airplane exactly where you need to.

Anything unsecured in the back of the airplane might hit you in the head. Several instructors are convinced that if those gas cans were not secured with the seat belt, they would have crushed us. Don't leave anything heavier than a teddy bear loose in the back seat.

Life jackets are great to have over water, but will not do you much good unless you can grab them instantly and put them on. If you have passengers, they should put on the jacket, or put it in front of their face, or between them and the yoke for quick access.

If you fly an airplane with a single door, make sure the person by the door is thoroughly briefed on how to exit, work the handles and where to push to open the door. Opening the door before impact is essential, because it may jam. A door is very hard to open in the slipstream, even at best glide, but try to get it open. Review your exit strategy: Who would get out first, second and so on.

Fly with friends when you can. Keep in contact with them when flying across a border, over water, in areas without radar or radio communication, anyplace you are on your own. Communicate on a discreet frequency; in Mexico we use 122.75.

Two heads are better than one. When we stopped in San Felipe, Rick asked if I wanted to fly with him. There is no one I enjoy flying with more than Rick, but I decided that putting the two most experienced pilots together and leaving a less-experienced pilot with a nonpilot was a bad idea. An emergency makes this sharing of experience even more critical.

Remove your glasses and headset, and make sure you are not tangled up in a mess of wires. Push the yoke-mounted apparatus out of the way - better yet, remove it if you have time.

If the airplane does not have shoulder harnesses, get some good ones that you can get out of quickly and easily. They could be the best safety items you have in your airplane. In a crash, the G forces are potentially lethal.

Play "What if we lost our engine right now?" When your mind is bent with panic, your previous training is the only thing that will come to save you. If the answer is, "There's no place to land," find a location that will give you more options.

Altitude is your friend. The more altitude you have, the more time you have to restart, prepare, find the best place to land and communicate your predicament.

Determine in advance who is best qualified to fly the airplane. Who is better at putting the airplane where it needs to be, more familiar with emergency procedures, has more experience? You won't have time to argue about this when all hell breaks loose.

Memorize the emergency checklist. In a real emergency, the airplane or your hands may be shaking so badly you can't reach the list, much less read it. Get your next rating. Many pilots stop at the instrument rating, thinking they will never tow a banner or spot fish, so why get a commercial rating? The commercial rating taught me how to master the airplane, how to control and land an airplane in tough situations. And if you don't have an instrument rating, you are fooling yourself if you think you are a safe pilot. Some pilots say they don't need an IFR rating because they only fly in good weather. What happens when you try to land at sunset and smoke fills the skies, as happened to me when we had the wildfires in Southern California? You never know what the scenario might be.

Get a new endorsement. I have never had so much fun in an airplane as I did working on my tail-dragger endorsement in a Piper J-3 Cub. This endorsement will help get your rudder skills down pat. You never know when you might need these skills - in an unexpected crosswind, for example. Or get a seaplane rating; it will quickly teach you that you should never hit nosewheel first. If you have ever tried to ride a surfboard, you'll recognize that bad things happen when the nose goes in first.

There is a lot of very expensive equipment you can put in little airplanes that will supposedly enhance safety. Most of it won't do you as much good as knowledge: Knowledge of how to manage the risks of flying, the knowledge that comes with staying current, reviewing safety measures and being ready for anything.

To see more of Barry Ross's aviation art, go to www.barryrossart.com.